Business as Unusual: the Frank Streeter Sale
By Bruce McKinney
Commencing Monday evening, April 16th, and continuing Tuesday, the 17th, Christies, in New York, orchestrated an immensely successful sale of the Frank S. Streeter Library including important navigation, Pacific voyages, cartography and science. The sale yielded $16,421,820 and dozens of broken hearts. Neither the auction house nor the consignors were among the unhappy. The aggregate low estimate gave hope to all though it turned out three times that number would be the average result: almost $30,000 a lot. As happens from time to time, exceptional material and timing combine with thorough description to produce a perfect storm of bidding. Such was how it was over this auction's three memorable sessions. We were in New York for the run-up and sale and both here (hi) or here (low), and at the end of this article, provide links to a 10 minute film about it. Comparison of material purchased at the Thomas Streeter sales in the late 1960s and resold here, as well as material purchased at the Penrose sale in 1971 and resold here are separately provided at the end of this 1,658 word article.
By our estimate more than a hundred individuals raised their paddles in the room, bid by phone, left order bids to be executed by the house and bid on-line. At the first session we counted 102 hopefuls, well-wishers and curious in the auction room [not including Christie's extensive staff] and in the second session Tuesday morning an ebb and flow crowd of about 85. Even as late as lot 492 in the third and final session 46 remained. Even those who either didn't bid or win seemed happy: a reminder of why book prices are written in pencil.
The occasion was memorable for many reasons. Frank Streeter is the son of Thomas Streeter, one of the most famous American book collectors of the 20th century. The father's collection, 4,421 lots in seven parts was sold by Parke-Bernet in 1966-1969 and brought the then exceptional total of $3,104,982, an amount about equal to the buyer's premium at his son's sale of 552 lots: $2,702,970. Times have changed.
In the late 1960's auction houses primarily sold to dealers and dealers often stepped aside to let their brethren buy advantageously. In his time Thomas Streeter countered this strategy with his own, providing generous stipends to libraries to contend with dealers for material. In doing so he followed the strategy of George Brinley who, in the 19th century, sent his collection of 9,450 lots to auction at Geo. A. Leavitt & Co. in New York while providing funds for bidding to a wide group of institutions.
No such inducements to bid were needed this time. Auction houses now carefully describe, provide help and advice and occasional extended terms. As a result, for great material, auction houses now regularly attract bidders from around the world.